Restoring the Civic Mission of Higher Education

As the school year begins anew in the midst of high unemployment and skyrocketing student debt, institutions of higher education are under increasing pressure to justify their worth and to demonstrate the economic value of the degrees they confer. For many, the dominant, if implicit, mantra seems to be “learn to earn.”

It is important that students graduate with the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in the workforce. But it is even more critical that students graduate with the requisite expertise and abilities to be informed and engaged citizens of the American democracy. Unfortunately, in recent years, colleges have been shirking their civic duty. In the midst of a messy election season, this is the ideal time to have a serious conversation about how we can restore the civic mission to higher education.

Historically, colleges sought to mold our country’s future democratic leaders by integrating academic instruction with cultivating a sense of moral and civic responsibility for community and country. Indeed, most university mission statements still have a strong civic bent (Brown University aims to prepare students to “serve the community, the nation, and the world”). Remaining true to these civic missions until the turn of the 20th century, many universities incorporated civic and moral content into mandatory capstone courses that encouraged students to think critically about their role in our democracy.

This is rarely the case today. As academic specialization and culture warfare intensify, controversy-shy colleges have retreated from their civic mission. It sometimes seems colleges fall into two categories (sometimes on the same campus): intellectual oases, in which students explore important issues, but do not act upon them, or economic engines where the goals are human capital formation and churning out ever more profitable industrial patents.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these trends have paralleled the atrophying of our democracy. Americans exhibit historically high levels of distrust towards elected officials and their ability to solve entrenched public problems. At the same time, Americans know less about government (only 1/3 of Americans can name all three branches of government, and 1/3 can’t name any), and vote in fewer numbers; only 20 percent of 18-30 year olds voted in the 2010 midterms, comprising only 10 percent of the overall electorate. The U.S. nowranks 139th out of 172 democracies in voter participation.

Read more at Huffington Post

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